Transport emissions have doubled in 40 years – expand railways to get them on track

8th January 2020 | Commercial Energy

In the quest to cut carbon out of civilisation, the future of transport is key. Emissions from the sector have doubled in the past 40 years and continue to rise. Our travel habits are now responsible for one in four of the planet-warming molecules of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. While the transition to electric vehicles will kickstart progress, even a rapid shift will not on its own bring the sector close enough to carbon neutrality to limit warming below dangerous levels. We’ll also need radical and rapid reductions in road traffic – facilitated by a shift to walking, cycling and public transport.

After decades of stalled progress, researchers and policy makers are grappling with how to make that happen – and railways could be an important part of the answer. They are highly efficient users of both land and energy – a train can carry several hundred people without having to lift a heavy machine into the air, and move with much less friction than faced by tyres on roads. Electric trains are particularly energy efficient, as they don’t have to carry diesel fuel or diesel engines, so are lighter and require less maintenance.

Transport emissions

Because of this, electrified rail travel uses seven times less CO2 than road travel and 20 times less than air travel. Investment in high-speed rail lines in Europe, for example, has transferred significant traffic from roads and flight paths, resulting in a 60% reduction in carbon emissions on the affected routes. The carbon-saving potential of rail is even greater for freight. Heavy goods vehicles contribute substantially to transport emissions – but because of their weight, battery technology is not yet an option to reduce this burden. Rail freight produces 76% less carbon emissions than an equivalent journey by heavy goods vehicle.

And as the electricity grid and train infrastructure transition further to renewable power, carbon savings for both passenger and freight rail services have the potential to get even bigger.

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